While it perhaps unfairly was holed up with Sideways and Little Miss Sunshine because of that far-indier-than-thou schtick going through “Indiewood,” Juno is a highly enjoyable, warming and funny film. My main interest in seeing this film was to see both Jason Bateman and Michael Cera together again. Sadly, they don’t share any screentime, so fans of Arrested Development will have to find more than just a few in jokes to AD to enjoy the film. Yet with a cracker of a script like this, fans of fast paced wit and good performances will find a lot to feast on.
The girl of the title, Juno (Ellen Page = brilliant), is pregnant via a mishap with friend Paulie (Michael Cera). Deciding the best thing to do would be to offer the child up for adoption, she meets seemingly perfect couple Jason Bateman and Jennifer Garner. There you go, the basic set up for the narrative but I have to say: Diablo Cody’s screenplay simply shines on screen. From obscure cultural refernces that Juno spits out to the audiences enjoyment to the fact that every character is well drawn and human, you can see how well a well written script can translate.
Of course, Juno is certainly the most interesting character of the lot, an amazonian female in a domestic environment, showing maturity above her years. A minor criticism could perhaps extend from the sheer extent of references and “cool-kid” attitude Juno exhibits (no 16-year-old knows that much!) but Page manages to pull it off without coming across as a brat. The future has a lot in store for her career, and she has already been signed on for a number of interesting projects (sadly, there’s a Sam Raimi one in there too). Like Little Miss Sunshine and Sideways, Juno will get pidgeon-holed into that offbeat niche, but as a film on its own, it is engaging, moving and it manages to avoid nearly every cliché. One of the best comdies of the year.
There Will Be Blood 5/5
Wow. Paul Thomas Anderson has struck gold again. After brilliant, brilliant ensemble pieces such as Boogie Nights and Magnolia (my favourite!) and a succesful workshop in how to make Adam Sandler interesting and likeable (see Punch Drunk Love) you would have thought there was little more a young director could offer you, but then this happened. Of course, the hype was there, the behemoth of a thesp that is Daniel Day-Lewis was there, but I just couldn’t control myself as the first shots of a lonely, even haunting California wilderness hit the screen, as my ears began to fill with an unbearably uncomfortable sound. I know then that this wasn’t going to be an easy watch.
People before have said noted the extravagant length of P.T Andersons work, but it should never be questioned that the length is a neccesity or not ever again. There Will Be Blood is a tour de force in this respect. The combination of a intricate and subtle script (settling itself within the great Puritan and Capitlist political traditions within America), cinematography that tears the eyes with both desolate beauty and harsh reality (the Cinematographer rightly rewarded an Oscar), an enrapturing performance by Daniel Day-Lewis as Daniel Plainview (rightly deserved an Oscar – a runaway compared to the competition), a rich, slow pace and direction from Anderson (He deserves 5 Oscars for this alone!) and most notable to me, a monstrously visceral score from Johnny Greenwood of Radiohead (Also deserves 5!). I mention this Score in another post (you can download it from the link!) but I must say again, what a brilliantly orchestrated vision from Greenwood, full of haunting rythmns that keep the tensions and unpredictability up to Hereculean altitudes.
Anderson has crafted nothing short of a Masterpiece here. It would be cheap of me to reveal the ending, but I will say that it will split some viewers as to there final opinion of the film. There are some stories that come to their end naturally, and there are some that must be fabricated. I would certainly say that There Will Be Blood adheres to the former and I can’t wait to see what wunderkind Anderson comes up with next, but I am also disappointed that such a reverent canvas of perfection did not clear away all comers at the Oscars. Like Scorsese’s Ragin Bull, it will divide opinion, but I will attest, forever to its brilliance.
No Country For Old Men 5/5
The lastest offering from the Coen Brothers has been quoted as a return to form. While I certainly have to say that there string of “flops” such as The Ladykillers were not necessarily bad films, when you consider this is the pair that brought us Fargo and The Big Lewbowski, you can appreciate the sentiment. Adapted from Cormac McCarthy’s work, No Country For Old Men is a labouring, rich and unpredictable tale. It tells the story of aging Sheriff Bell, played by a brilliantly laconic Tommy Lee Jones, left behind by a world he simply cannot understand. The enigma is Anton Chigurh (Javier Bardem), a ruthless killer who leisurely decides who lives or dies. The “everyman” running for his life is Llywellen Moss, a terrific Josh Brolin (top notch), when he comes across a stash of money.
SPOILERS AHEAD: What follows is a cat and mouse game that leaves Tommy Lee Jones’ Sheriff Bell confounded and always one step too far behind. On the first viewing of this film, I was struck by the level of perfection the Coen Brothers had set there sights upon. McCarthy’s work is rightly revered considering the screenplay the brothers have come up with; rich with themes, well drawn characters with a futile optimism for chance and a knowing fatality, it truly is a splendid translation onto screen. The Coen brothers show a direction and maturity that will have fans of Fargo in two minds about which one trumps the other, and they show a mastery of suspense that has not been touched upon since said film. The performances are all measured and executed to the right balance; Jones is a sad figure to watch who invokes sympathy and understanding, Brolin wreaks of desperation and grit determination and Bardem is chillingly effective in his methods and philosophy.
By the films end, Chigurh has proven that running is futile. On my first viewing, I felt lost when we see our everyman Moss dead on the floor of a motel. The fact that Brolin endears such a thirst for survival is a tribute to the mastery of his performance, especially for a character who, realistcally, never had a chance of escaping the ghost that is Anton Chigurh. On that first viewing, during the last few scenes, I lost concentration and focus, and Jones’ last, monotone words about two strange dreams were lost on me. The calm uncertainty he displays as an actor is compelling, and the lack of a musical cue for the credits left me quite motionless. On the second viewing however, when I knew that Moss’ mortality was running on a timer, I was able to take in the beautiful scripted and executed last passages Jones speaks, and fully appreciated that it is Sheriff Bells story, and that he simply isn’t young enough to comprehend the world Chigurh inhibits.
Jesus. This film is a strange one. This may be Stallone’s last outing as the tortured ‘Nam vet, and I am not entirely convinced whether this does wrap up an iconic, if utterly ludicrous franchise or not. One might suspect that Sly Stallone is trying to come to terms with his creation (Yes, adapted from a book, but Sly has certainly created his “own” Rambo), to reconcile the gung ho image in a post 9/11 world. Indeed, one can see evidence of this in the film, but other elements are simply baffling.
The basic premise consists of a group of affluent, middle class religous types asking a brooding John Rambo for passage up the river, hoping to bring aid to the impoverished villages. Rambo is reluctant, but the only woman in the group manages to convince him that they are somehow equipped and ready for the danger; this relationship is wrongly constructed as Rambo’s motivation for heroic vengeance later on, a cringeworthy “beauty and the beast” relationship, which does not work well. Considering the violence, some humanitarian instinct in Rambo would have felt more apt.
After a horde of murderous Burmese soldies mercilessly assault the village the aid workers are helping, Rambo is again asked to escort a group up river, this time a group of mercenaries hired to rescue the first lot. Rambo, of course, has his fitness disreputed by the ill developed mercenaries and asked to guard the boat when they reach their destination. The mercenaries are not alone in questinging Sly’s looks these days, but when you consider the bloke is 60 years old all I can say is that he has held together well. I can say I was glad to see Rambo’s explosive entrace, if only to end the gritty violence that is so hard to watch.
This leads on to my next point: the violence. Much has been said regarding this, but I can honestly say, it is off putting, shocking and disturbing. I can commend the production however, for not turning this into an overly camp Sam Raimi limb fest, and it really does give the under developed villains a touch of ruthlessness that the pantomine villains of other installments have lacked. While there certainly are a few over the top losses of limberage about, in comparison to what it could have become, they have kept it in relative control. By the end of the film, as the last scene echoes the start of First Blood, I am not sure whether I am satisfied or not. It should be said, Rambo feels incredibly short. Its narrative is flat and does not offer any real pleasure, especially considering the ungratuitous violence thrown about. However, all in all, perhaps a more violent and fatal installment was what was needed to forget the ludicrous sequels that were Rambo: First Blood Part II and Rambo III.
Be Kind Rewind 2/5
The idea of this film struck me as brilliant: the contents of an entire VHS store are mysteriously erased and the workers must cope with customer demand, refilming classic titles to pass them off as their own. It is the brainchild of that hero of all things low-fi and refreshing, Michel Gondry, and it sees him write and direct Mos Def and Jack Black in a comedy thats execution lands disappointedly short of what it could have been, i.e funny. I like Michel Gondry, although I must fit in the cateogry of those who only know him because of the wonderful Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. I like Mos Def, who has always proved to be effective and enjoyable in anything I’ve seen him in. Jack Black just plain pisses me off, but I was willing to watch Be Kind Rewind in spite of him and rather for his company.
Be Kind Rewind is that it is only occasionally funny. As one might expect, the best laughs come from the fruition of the premise: the low budget filming of classics, or at least well known and enjoyable films with a simple outdated cam-corder, a few volunteers and what one might call “location shooting.” Some how, Jerry (Black) becomes electromagnetic and wipes all the tapes while Mike (Def) is watching the store. This is hardly reconciled by the end of the film and serves as a one-off joke is anything. Be Kind Rewind provides however with Gondry’s amazing nack for visual trickery. A good example is the re-filming of Rush Hour 2, where Jerry is extended from a kids climbing crane, with a false perspective (well, a childs play) mat. An enjoyable montage shows some of the other remakes (RoboCop, Men In Black, Driving Miss Daisy) but it is too short to make up for the rest of the film.
The problem with BKR does not lie with bad direction, bad performances (Black is bearable at least!) or even comical mistiming (the duo have a good thing going actually) but with the script. The plot is wrapped up in a shoddy bundle and is unwrapped by someone who doesn’t feel like a popular director like Gondry. There are two few laughs contained in the plot and it cannot even manage irellevant off-beat humour a la Will Ferell comedies, and BKR is at its best for the 5 minute montage of “swedes.” While this was no comical masterpiece in the making, the premise had a lot to work with and allowed for a lot of laughs and a solid comedy. Be Kind Rewind disappoints.
Iron Man 3/5
What could have been the infamous cock-up of the Summer Blockbusters turns out into thoroughly enjoyable romp. The story is, as comic book stories go, rather a stock one. Yet it is the humour and (relative) depth invested into the motions that are so generically familiar that allow the talent involved in this production (Marvel’s first self financed) to shine through. Tony Stark (played with marvellous verve by Robert Downey Jr) is a coy businessman dealing with in the arms trade with a remarkably cavalier attitude to the consequences of his business. That is until he gets his epithany in the way of an ambush, masterminded by Islamist rebels during a testing of his brand-spanking new weapon Jericho, in Afghanistan. It’s a remarkably confident opening salvo, but also one that may worry some parents.
Captured, injured and dazed, Stark is transported to the underground lair of the rebels where is tasked to build his prototype Jericho again. Realising the consequences of his industrious lifestyle, with the help of a humanitarian fellow scientist, he instead builds a hulking iron suit that can deflect bullets, move with suprising agility, spur flames from its wrists and of course, fly. Downey Jr. provides a very smart approach to this character, not that it is far removed from some of the characters it has portrayed before, but allows this yuppie playboy to grow into a redeemed man so effectively. In returning to the USA (yawn), he begins to expand his heroic sentiments by streamlining the suit, improving its effectiveness and mending his iron heart (oh, I forgot to mention? In captivity he replaces his failing heart with a mini nuclear reactor).
He does this with the help of Pepper Potts (crap name but it’s a comic-book; get over it) played by Gwyneth Paltrow, who provides a strained output for Stark’s emotional deadlock, James Rhodes (miscast Terence Howard) an Airforce buddy who has little to do for the entire film and the omniously named Obadiah Stane (a suprisingly flat Jeff Bridges), an executive in Stark’s company who serves as a kind of older brother to Tony for the majority of the film.
Of course, for an ‘origin superhero’ film, it must worry itself with going through the tired motions of testing the limits of his powers, yet Iron Man certainly delivers in this sense. Given an extra sense of suave charisma, Downey Jr. simply blooms in a role where he can demand the audiences full attention to these scenes. They are in no way different from the mediocrity of Spiderman or Hulk (although inferior to Nolan’s Batman Begins) yet are all the more enjoyable for the executive decisions made by Marvel and (the director) John Favreau’s sensibility for characterisation over action.
Sadly, the last act of Iron Man tires before delivering anything as satisfactory as promised. Involving a slightly convulted act of betrayal by Obadiah Stane (Bridges) – the name said it all from the beginning – Stark must battle a more superior incarnation of his own suit on low battery power. The climax itself revolves around a frankly uninteresting Stark HQ in LA, a slightly contrived threat for Pepper Potts and a Tony Stark frankly as tired as the means of disposing Stane for good.
Iron Man, you feel, has a lot to offer in the future. But it is not served well with a tired last serving such as this.